I could not have picked more disparate reads this week; earlier, I read a rollicking tale set in Dublin, and for my second international read, I chose O.Z. Livaneli’s Bliss, which was significantly heavier.
Bliss centers on three main characters; at the core of the story is Maryem, a fifteen-year-old girl whose life is turned upside down when her uncle rapes her, for which she, of course, is shamed. Her cousin Cemal is a soldier traumatized by war, and upon returning home after his service, he is tasked with taking Meryam “to Istanbul”—a euphemism for carrying out an honor killing. And seemingly unconnected to their tale is Irfan, a successful university professor who has everything yet suffers crippling anxiety attacks and undergoes an existential crisis that culminates in his leaving everything behind to take to the seas.
Meryam is clearly the star of the book, as her story arc is the most dramatic. Her vibrancy and will to live in the face of what she doesn’t fully realize is a death sentence is commendable, and she handles change with an ease that many would find enviable. Even Cemal, by turns angry, frustrated, hurt, and overall wounded, is not always a nice character, but he is consistent and sympathetic as too many difficult demands have already been made of him. War has wrought its toll on him, and he no longer has a place to belong.
The character who seems out of place here is Irfan, and while the story’s events do draw the three characters together, the professor’s psychological plight seems much less significant in the face of the very real traumas inflicted on both Meryam and Cemal, and as a reader, I found it difficult to pity this man of privilege who just walked out on his wife, job, and life. One thing the disparity of narratives does illustrate, however, is the diversity of viewpoints and experiences in a country that many Americans would lump as vaguely somewhere “over there” in the Middle East; whether traditional and conservative or modern and liberal, characters in Bliss all face their challenges.
With hefty topics like rape, honor killings, and PTSD, this is not going to be the book for everyone. However, it offers some fascinating cultural glimpses and would make a provocative book club pick, given the right readers.